10 NASA Spin-off Technologies Resulting From the Space Race

Added by Andrew Tyson on Jun 8, 2021
NASA spinoff technologies

Sometimes pure evil can, ironically, lead to good - and the space race is a prime example. The events leading to the race for space domination between the USSR and the USA can be traced back to the 1930's and Nazi Germany. Back in those days German missile technology was the most advanced in the world, and German scientists were experimenting with liquid-fueled rockets with the ultimate goal of sending rockets higher and further than ever before. Towards the end of the second world war both nations captured this advanced German rocket technology as well as staff, leading to a missile-based arms race.

This symbolic race was seen as a way to show the respective nation's technological and ideological dominance, and was even considered critical for national security. During those years there was a marked increase in education and research spending by the US government, with great importance placed on mathematics and science in schools.

The dream of reaching the stars brought about the space-race - a concerted effort to land on the moon, orbit a satellite around the Earth, and a whole lot more. These goals led to many spin-off technologies being developed along the way; today we'll be talking about the 10 most important ones.


Highway safety

In order to prevent their test aircrafts from skidding and sliding off of wet runways, NASA developed the idea of safety grooving, grinding angled grooves in the runway to increase traction and prevent skidding on what was an otherwise smooth surface. This decreased stopping distance, as well as improved cornering ability and control. This process was adapted to highways to increase vehicle control in poor weather, and it has even moved on to parking lots and animal pens for the same reason of providing superior grip.


Structural analysis software

In order to properly analyze and design space vehicles, NASA needed a computer program what could take into account the elements and stresses the vehicles would undergo. Developed in the 1960s, and released to the public in 1971, NASTRAN is a finite element analysis program able to solve complex boundary value problems. Able to analyze the behavior of any elastic structure, this program has been used in a vast number of industries, helping to design anything from cars to skyscrapers. NASTRAN is continually evolving, and almost half of a century later is still considered an industry standard for aerospace design.


MRI Scanners

It has long been rumored that NASA invented MRI and MRI machines. While this is untrue, NASA has contributed processes and technology that has helped other companies to develop the MRI scanners used in hospitals. When the Apollo Lunar Landing Program was being developed, engineers at NASA developed a technology known as digital image processing. Using this as a starting point, civilian contractors were able to develop MRI Scanners.


Implantable Heart Aid

Essentially a miniaturized, implantable version of a defibrillator, the AID implantable automatic pulse generator was spun off from NASA’s Apollo technology. The AID monitors the heart continually and can deliver a corrective electronic shock if it detects a problem. It is implanted, and after that requires no additional equipment or specialized personnel for usage, only needing the usual check-ups.


Fire-resistant building reinforcements

In order to provide safe re-entry, the Apollo capsules had to be coated with fire-resistant materials, or else they would melt during entry. The heat shield was the leading edge, and bore the brunt of the heat. AVCO responded by developing a material that would expand when heated and then burn away, dissipating the heat energy and keeping the capsule at a safe temperature. This then lead to the development of fire retardant paint, and later on, steel coatings for high-rise buildings to create an insulating layer around the steel and put off weakening and collapse for up to four more hours than just plain, uncoated steel. This technology is in use in almost all modern high-rise buildings.


Improved radial tires

While radial tires have been around for a long time, developed in the early 20th century, they have changed quite a bit. Developments in design and materials have helped to create stronger tires. During the development of the Viking Lander spacecraft, Goodyear developed a strong fibrous material for the parachute shrouds. They noted the durability of the material, and adapted it for use in their radial tires. As a result, Goodyear was able to immediately improve the tread life of their radial tires by almost 10,000 miles.


Keyhole surgery

The development of the Da Vinci robotic system is considered one of the most significant advances in surgery in the past decade. This system allows for minimally invasive (keyhole) surgery through a computer interface controlling small instruments through minimal incisions. This technology was originally developed by NASA in order to allow the best surgeons to perform necessary operations on astronauts who are in space. This type of surgery improves vision for the surgeon, while the robotic arms are more flexible than a surgeon’s wrist. Surgeries performed by this method have resulted in less blood loss on average, meaning less blood transfusion necessary; shortened post-operative stays; and faster return to pre-operative abilities. Essentially, it has made surgery faster, easier, less painful, and easier to bounce back from.


Water purification

Water is the most valuable commodity on the planet, as it is absolutely necessary for every human to have a good supply of clean drinking water in order to live well. One of the first problems NASA had to address for the international space station was to provide a long-term supply of portable water for the astronauts, including the ability to produce water in a closed system. The water filtration systems that resulted from this has been modified for civilian use, and is currently used around the world to create drinkable water in areas where the current water sources are heavily contaminated.


Monitoring and testing food production

To provide food for the space program, NASA contacted Pillsbury to develop a method by which they could ensure that any food sent into space was free of toxins or bacterias that could cause disease. Pillsbury then developed a process called the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point concept. This concept prevents food contamination and safety problems instead of addressing them after the fact. Some of these processes were then adopted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as standards for the handling of seafood, juice, and dairy products.


Scratch-resistant Lenses

Diamond is the hardest substance known to man, but it is also extremely costly. The technology to coat a lens with diamond-like carbon was developed in order to make helmet visors harder and more able to withstand the rigors of space, as well as reducing surface friction so that water will shed more easily to reduce spotting. This same technology was then adapted for use in the sunglass industry in order to produce sunglass lenses that were less likely to scratch.

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